Over decades of doing and leading ministry in the local church, we (Bobby and Bill) both agree that the church’s most difficult problem is not growth or the revolving door, as some might say. Rather, the church’s deepest challenge lies in convincing its citizens that who they are and what they do outside of church services is the real work of God.
So how do we navigate this challenge and produce churches of disciples who make disciples? Thankfully, the Apostle Paul was well aware of what Jesus taught in His Great Commission. Not only was he aware of it, he also was driven by it.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul claimed, “I received my message from no human source, and no one taught me. Instead, I received it by direct revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:12, NLT).
By the time Paul settled down for three years in Ephesus, he had developed a well-defined orthodoxy (beliefs) and orthopraxis (practice). You could even call Ephesus the disciple-making church.
With some confidence, we could say that of the first-century churches we know about, Ephesus was the most fully developed. That’s why we rely on Paul’s more highly developed theology found in his letter to the Ephesians, especially his teaching on the heart of the leader’s task and his practical responsibility (Eph. 4:11-16). If you want to know how to develop a church that seeks and saves, this is it.
“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do His work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (NLT).
This text abounds with core principles that when practiced, can be revolutionary.
Gifted leaders are responsible to equip people for their work. The gifted leaders referenced in the text are apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. All of these roles are needed to match the diversity of gifts that God has given His people.
The saints need the apostles’ impulse to press forward; the courage and clarity of the prophet; the desire to tell the story of the evangelist; the care and attention of the pastor; and the principles and knowledge of the teacher.
“Equip” is a comprehensive word, meaning to mend a frayed net, to reset a broken bone, to prepare for athletic competition. We like to describe it as “coaching.” Multi-dimensional gifted leaders are needed to prepare or “coach” a diverse group of people.
We like to hear and tell stories of churches that have made the transition to “every member being a minister.” Our friend, Jim Putman, has one of the best stories around, with more than 6,000 people in a small Northern Idaho city attending church and participating in small groups every week. Around half the people who attend church services were not Christians before they joined, and now they commonly all see themselves as ministers of Christ. They were equipped or “coached” as disciples and then as “disciple makers,” and now they are transforming a community.
God’s people are the saints. This includes all members. Sinners are also saints. Being called a sinner is a compliment. It means that God believes we can confess our sins and take up the life of a saint. The ordinary common believer—not the clergy or religious professional (often the one gifted to train)—is at the center of this instruction in verse 12. And by verse 16, it’s obvious that everyone is to be included in the process–no exceptions.
The first step is for the church to be built up. Paul says that the equipping process must be effective. If it isn’t, and the church begins seeking and saving others without the proper foundation, the church will collapse like a house of cards. Bringing new people into a dysfunctional environment is disastrous.
This equipping continues until the saints, individually and corporately, meet the standard of Christlikeness. The standard for stopping the equipping process is “until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Eph. 4:13, NLT). Equipping the saints never ceases. But this passage provides some general goals that tell us when we are solid and have a good foundation.
Equipping addresses the problems of immaturity, disunity, instability, deception, inactivity, shallowness, addiction to desire and lack of focus. The clear goal is to avoid much of the negative aspects of immaturity. The text says, “We will no longer be immature like children” (Eph. 4:14, NLT). The fruit of immaturity has destroyed many a congregation or ministry. The list of problems in this verse speaks for itself. These issues must be worked out over time under the supervision of fellow saints and leaders. In many ways, this is a core part of discipleship.
The above list of pathologies not only distracts but also destroys. These hurts and wounds take up a lot of time and energy. They are the kinds of problems we can avoid, or at least minimize, by a commitment to developing people in Christ as a first priority.
Equipping leads to finding our place in the body and making our contribution. Everyone is called to participate and thrive in a healthy and loving environment. Instead of being willing victims of the contemporary culture, the mature church bases their cause and relationship on truth. The church is called to speak the truth to the world in love. Sadly, some of us have failed at this point. The idea for optimum use of our gifts and abilities is done in humility to fit into and serve the team.
Nupedia and Wikipedia
You may have never heard of Nupedia. In 2000, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger believed they could revolutionize the way people accessed knowledge. Their idea was to develop a new online encyclopedia by gathering knowledge from the best and the brightest—professors, historians and researchers–who Twould write articles and after careful editing, the material would be uploaded to a site. Having posted only 24 articles in three years, they pulled the plug on the project. The work had been tedious; much of it stuck in the editing phase and locked in ideological conflict.
In desperation, Wales and Sanger thought they could correct the problem by developing a feeder system for Nupedia by allowing ordinary men and women to voluntarily submit articles. They would enlist people who were passionate and willing to write without pay. The first year, they posted 20,000 articles. Today, more than 20 million articles live on Wikipedia, the most accessible encyclopedia on earth. You get the point. The church operates like Nupedia, but it is designed to work like Wikipedia. When only accredited, trained clergy are allowed to carry out real ministry, you get a bottleneck.
The plan Paul presented to the Ephesians depended on two things:
First, the leaders must equip the ordinary saints to do ministry. Second, each saint must participate. For this to happen, the leaders must give up their fear of losing control, and the saints must face the fear of embarrassment or failure.
A powerful plan for the church today.
This article was excerpted and adapted from the FREE eBook, Evangelism or Discipleship: Can They Work Together Effectively? by Bobby Harrington and Bill Hull. Download Evangelism or Discipleship here.
About the Authors
Bobby Harrington is lead pastor-coach at Harpeth Community Church in Nashville. He is one of the founders of the new Relational Discipleship Network and is founder of Discipleship.org. Bobby has trained hundreds of church planters and has authored or co-authored multiple books, including DiscipleShift: Five Steps That Help Your Church to Make Disciples Who Make Disciples with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman.
Bill Hull is a writer and discipleship evangelist calling the church to choose the life Jesus calls His disciples to. Bill has written many books on this subject (including the watershed works The Disciple Making Pastor and The Disciple Making Church and spent 20 years working it out as a pastor.